Where does your chicken come from?

Knowing where our food comes from is part of the privileges that come with having so many different food options. Today’s post is a guest post from a friend working as a recipe developer and buyer for a large UK restaurant. She emailed this to me last week and I thought it was something that needed to be shared.

I went to a site visit to a poultry farm yesterday for work. It’s quite a big one – as they have their own farms, and processing plant/ abattoir.
It was both fascinating and horrific at the same time.

So we started at the beginning, by seeing the chicks in the sheds. There were 24,000 chicks in a space of 240 sq meters.
This is the ‘red tractor’ welfare standard, which they sell in the supermarket without any fan fare. The mortality rate is about 1% a day. But when you account for the fact it’s 24,000 – it still seems like a high amount you are losing a day .
They’re fed antibiotics to ‘start’ them off, as a precautionary measure, as they are vulnerable when they’re young.
Then depending on the welfare standard – they’re either kept in these dark sheds (or if they’re lucky they might have windows) and just fed and watered until they’re ready at about 30 days.
If they’re RSPCA standard, they will have more room, less chickens per sq meter and what they call ‘environmental enrichment’, which amounts to – some cd’s hanging from the ceiling, some bales of hay and maybe some other objects to play with.
In the standard I saw, they do get 6 hours of sleep/dark a night. And there was no funny beak cutting or anything like that going on.
This was actually a good family run business. So I’d hate to think what happens on other farms.

Anyway moving on. I then went to visit the free range farm, which just reminded me of all the reasons I buy free range. Birds have masses of space to roam around. They’re all fat and healthy and look like they’re on vacation. Because of all the exercise, and subsequent weight loss, they need to be ‘grown’ for 50+ days.

So at this point, I could have gone back to london, but since I was there, I wanted to visit the processing plant to see the whole process. It was like walking into hell!

Irrespective of whether you chicken is free range/ barn reared. They’re all going to die the same way.
It starts with the unloading area. Where (at the time I was visiting) there were 3 lorries of chickens parked in the area. They’re held in these blue plastic crates, which you can literally slide out like a drawer, and there are 6 chickens crouching in it. Obviously there’s shit all over the base of them.
The crate is loaded onto a conveyor belt, which leads you to the factory……

At this stage it stinks like chicken shit. There is a line of about 8 people, who’s job it is, to hang the chicken from their feet upside down, in this contraption that runs above your head, and will basically transport the chicken through the rest of the process.

At this point we had to walk down a corridor and into the processing room to get to the kill area. What awaits you when the door opens is just mind boggling. 10,000 chickens killed an hour. I walked in, there are all these carcasses whizzing past your head at various stages of processing, I had to duck under lines of recently dead chicken. Blood and liquid is flinging all over the place. It’s warm, humid and smells like blood.

Back to the process.

The chickens are upside down and go through a machine that slits their throats. There is one guy standing there, looking like a psycho, sharpening his knife – it’s his job to make sure that the chickens are killed. As the next process is when they’re dunked in boiling water and their feathers are plucked off.
This is all done in a closed machine, although the person showing me around, was kind enough to open it up, so I could see what was going on.

Then, out the other end, comes these chickens which look part poached, mainly feather free, with half their head hanging off.
Thank god the chinese serve their chickens with the head still attached, because I think I could have got all girly at this stage and freaked out.
It’s just the pace of all these recently killed animals whizzing past. It’s like the mechanical magical process gone wrong.
Anyway they go through all these different machines, one to chop off the heads, one to chop off the feet (all the feet get exported to china). Then there’s the machine that eviscerates the chickens. This is the part where I got over the initial horror and started to become fascinated in the machinery, in some ways it seemed a triumph of human ingenuity. It literally neatly pulls out all the guts, the guts and entrails are hanging on one hook, the chicken beside it on another hook.  When seen front on, it’s almost like a mug shot of the chicken.
Chicken on back hook, accompanying guts on front hook.

The hooks go their separate ways, anything useful (livers) are sorted out, then the rest gets processed for pet food.
While the chicken carcass continues on it’s journey to be checked, washed, weighed and packed.

The whole process took about 30 minutes to view, and when we walked out, we were splattered in blood.

It’s not going to put me off eating chicken. But it did raise the question that I first started thinking about after reading ‘eating animals’ by jonathan safran foer, about the slaughter process. Everyone is so focused on welfare standards. Which is great in a way, but if they all end their lives in a horrific way, you could argue what difference does it make.
I did find comfort that this was a good plant, highly efficient and professional.

I should probably follow up the process to see how our pigs and cattle are killed. But I think it might take a bit more time to mentally ready myself.

About Michelle

Michelle is passionate about showing people how easy it is to prepare food that is healthy and packed full of flavour. She has just completed her first recipe book, Healthy Helpings: fast food for fit physiques. She began sharing her love of food in 2007, when she produced two series of the online cooking show ‘Healthy Helpings TV’, making fast food healthy and healthy food fast. In 2008 she competed in bodybuilding as a novice figure shaping competitor and she remains passionate about physique sports. She was a 2009 Australian Masterchef semi-finalist, and contributes articles to Oxygen Magazine Australia. Michelle lives with her husband on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia, where she loves to search out new ingredients and food ideas from local farmers markets, health food shops and ethnic grocers, and take her two dogs on long rambles through the vineyards. Find out more about Michelle's book